Wednesday, March 25, 2015

All About That Bass

No, not that song!


Have you ever sung or performed with a group of musicians when the bass part was missing?

All that remains is the treble parts.

There is no foundation.

The musical harmonies are incomplete.

The missing part is very obvious to the musicians.

What follows are some thoughts about the evolution of the bass line in music.


Prior to/Around 1000 A.D. church music was known as Gregorian chant.

Gregorian chant was monophonic which means there was only one melodic line.

THE melody.

Then came organum which is considered to be the first form of harmonic music. 

In organum the melody was still the Gregorian chant with a harmonic part that would, initially, be improvised; later it would be notated.

However, the harmonic part was a descant, or was written above the melody/Gregorian chant.

This effectively made the original Gregorian chant the "bass line" of this now two-part music - for the time being.

As the third harmonic part was added it too was also added above the Gregorian chant which, because of its foundation-like status, became known as the cantus firmus.

The harmonic parts were treble and the cantus firmus, or Gregorian chant, would be called "Tenor."

[Side note: I have often wondered if this was why the melody part in Sacred Harp/Shaped note music was written in the tenor part.]

Eventually, a fourth harmonic part was added below the cantus firmus, or Gregorian chant, which would become what we now know as the bass line.

Where the cantus firmus initially was intended to be the most important part of a piece of music due to its religious importance the bass line would eventually become the most important part.


While an unaccompanied, monophonic piece of music - be it sung or played on an instrument - does not technically have a "bass" line there is an implied bass line even though it may be unwritten.

I can safely say that every song/piece of music with tonal harmonies written today has a bass line.

It is the foundation to which the melody is tied.

A polarity, if you will, exists between the melody and the bass line.

It is the foundation upon which all other harmonic parts are dependent.

Therefore, in tonal music every other part has distinct relationship to the bass line.

So you see, it really is all about that bass!

It's not just the title of some song.

No comments:

Post a Comment